Bargain Baumgartner lookin' good

BARRY MACDONALD -- 24 Hours Vancouver

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

It just may turn out to be one of those classic, better-late-than-never stories.

First-round draft choices aren't supposed to linger around in their chosen profession, hoping for a chance to finally live up to that old nemesis - potential.

They are supposed to smile and say all the right things as teenage, draft-day darlings, then get on with the business of earning their millions and making management look good.

That is the best-case scenario.

But it isn't always the case.

Ask Nolan Baumgartner.

He played his junior hockey in Kamloops and in 1994 was the 10th player selected in the first round of the NHL Draft - just after Brett Lindros and just before Jeff Friesen.

Of the 26 players chosen in that first round, 23 have played in the NHL. None of them had played fewer games in "The Show" than Nolan Baumgartner heading into the current season.

He had all of 48 NHL games on his resume last fall, scattered over seven seasons and four different organizations.

He has 43 already this season. Talk about making up for lost time.

This is his 11th professional season. He has played in Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Vancouver. And, oh yes, Winnipeg, Norfolk and Portland, Maine.

Five hundred and eighteen of his 566 professional games prior to this season were played in the American Hockey League, which is where unfulfilled potential goes to die.

At the age 28, Baumgartner was getting to the now-or-never, put-up-or-shut-up point of his career.

He is finally getting something this season that he hasn't had before - a chance.

He had eight NHL auditions prior to what is emerging as his coming out season. Four separate stints with Washington lasting one, four, five and eight games.

Then he was traded for the immortal Remi Royer and had one season in Chicago lasting another eight games.

Then eight in Vancouver, five in Pittsburgh and another eight here.

Ah, the life of a first round draft choice. But at long last, it would seem Baumgartner is here to stay.

Persistence has paid off and so has the new economics of the NHL.

The Canucks simply could not afford to keep Marek Malik at $2.5 million or Brent Sopel at $2.4 million. Enter bargain-basement Baumgartner at the NHL minimum of $450,000.

The price was right for the Canucks and Baumgartner wasn't exactly in position to hold out.

He has held up his end of what has been a bargain for the locals with 22 points in 43 games, and a very respectable plus-7.

There was great concern about who would fill the fifth defenceman role, and it is fair to suggest it is less of a concern now that it was three months ago.

The challenge for Baumgartner will be in the playoffs, when officials will swallow their whistles and let bigger, more aggressive types get away with picks and other not-so-subtle interference.

That type of play is difficult for the biggest defencemen, never mind the mid-sized models like Baumgartner.

It's hard not to root for this guy.

He's good in the room, whatever that means. He does charity work. He knows how lucky he is to have what he has and isn't one of those professional athletes who thinks the world owes him something on a daily basis.

It's not easy living up to that "can't miss" label as a first-round draft pick and for a time it looked like Baumgartner would miss.

That could have been his legacy.

Fate, and making the most of an opportunity have steered him in another direction. Good on him.


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